an interview w/ Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips
by Black Bubblegum, photos by Ryan Muir
'And for like ten minutes she would just do these fucking amazing animal yelps and screams and growling and all this shit.'
Its a beautiful warm Sunday morning at Kutscher's and Wayne Coyne is waiting for me in a golf cart near the main stage. Clad in his trademark light colored suit, I shake his hand and exchange pleasantries. Then he notices that I'm with photographer Ryan Muir.
"You want to take some pictures? Lets head to the pool."
One problem. The pool is separated by a chain-link fence and there is no way around.
"Let's just jump it" Wayne says, but he's already on the other side.
Wayne is a gracious, charismatic ringmaster/shaman who is up for anything, as long as it leaves a lasting impression, much like the lovable oddballs The Flaming Lips that he fronts.
Starting over 25 years ago as an acid-drenched punk band with a Butthole Surfers obsession, The Flaming Lips have aged gracefully into their current role as quirky pop elder statesmen by keeping their punk rock spirit and freak-out tendencies. 1999's The Soft Bulletin began the band's current trajectory towards poignant and epic melodies, which continues with the release of their new LP Embryonic. It impacts record stores on October 13th, and you can listen to it now courtesy of the Colbert Report.
As you probably heard, The Flaming Lips were invited to headline All Tomorrow's Parties New York (ATP NY) as well as curate the final day of shows at the festival this year. We sat with the Oklahoma native on that sunday (9/13), while a team of men in orange jumpsuits (read: The Lips crew) carted around giant lighting sets, trashcans filled with stuffed animals, and yeti costumes....
So The Flaming Lips obviously handpicked all of the bands on Sunday, but did you pick some of the scenarios? The teaming of Bob Mould with No Age, Boris playing Feedbacker... Oneida playing all day...
Wayne: Well, we didn't want to dictate what the groups did, but we suggested that they do something that isn't just their set. Just so that it would be a more unique sort of moment. We just sometimes will say, here's our opinion, which in turn is saying tell us your opinion... because a lot of times when artists gets together, everybody just says "you're great" and nothing ever happens. I remember when we were talking with Oneida, we suggested that they do a Beatles record or Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, something that we like, just as our own self indulgent "here's what I'd like to see".
They suggested this thing where they have their recording studio and I thought, well, that's what we wanted. With No Age... I think in the beginning they were going to do Zen Arcade or something, and then as it progressed on I was surprised that they actually just got Bob Mould to do it with them.
Okay, so that wasn't ever part of the plan originally?
We didn't suggest that. I think they pursued that on their own. But in the beginning, it seemed like there was something about them doing a Husker Du thing. I think the only drawback to that is with once Bob Mould is there, there will be no Grant Hart songs, which, you know, isn't quite Husker Du, but it's close enough. And Bob Mould is great, so. So I wouldn't say that we're responsible for it, but I think we suggested you can do whatever you want.
A sort of nudge in the direction.
Yeah, just do what you want, it doesn't have to be just your stellar set.
So Embyronic... its a double LP.
It is. Yeah, well, everybody else is releasing singles. We're giving you 18...
Exactly! In the digital age you got to go with the exact opposite.
I know, but I still sort of feel like, people should just download whatever they want. I mean, we're only doing it as a double album for our own subjective, self indulgent bullshit reasons. It's just really, it's just songs, you know.
So that was the concept going in? So you guys said, a double album, that's the goal.
Yeah. And I don't know if that colored our way that we would make a record, I don't know if it would do that for everybody. I mean obviously groups like Sonic Youth have done double records. And it's just more Sonic Youth stuff. I mean, I love it, but it doesn't feel like it's any different than other Sonic Youth records, it's just bigger records. You know?
I think we sort of looked at it, as it would allow us to do like nine or ten of the sort of "normal", well thought out, produced songs. And then there'd be nine or ten songs that were just like self indulgent sort of bullshit, you know? And yeah, it's a double record, but that's what they're supposed to be like. Well, I think in the end I don't think we ever really did anything about the first batch. I think we had songs written that were supposed to be these well produced, thought out songs, but then we just sort of immediately went and embraced the freak out abstract bullshit songs and I don't think we ever went back to the other ones. We were just having so much ... having fun is a weird word, but freedom... and we kind of didn't know why we should go back and do the other thing. We wanted to kind of get lost in whatever obsessive musical shit got a hold of us. I mean, that's what we always do. And we didn't know what that was going to do, so I think when we started to make this record and it's just more strange and sort of hypnotic. And it's not necessarily pop songs and structured and stuff. I was thinking that after five or six songs like that we'd think "let's do something different", but I don't think we did. I think we just got lost in it and after we got to 17 or 18 songs we were like, "fuck it, that's cool, let's just make that a record". And I don't know if that's good or bad but I do know that's what I would want from the Flaming Lips. I would want them to just go into the woods, fucking freak out, and record that somehow. That should be the document of what you are and what you represent. So I don't know, I don't really know how else to make records. We always think we're writing songs and producing them, but we really never are. We always get lost on some tangent and emerge kind of embarrassed like, what are we going to do now? You know?
So how did Karen O and MGMT collaborations come about?
Well, we were doing a song, um ... a song called "Watching the Planets"; I'm going to make a video for it next week. But ... I was doing this song and we didn't really know where it was going to go, but I was singing this part that I thought kind of sounded like something that Karen O (of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs) would sing. I don't know why. It just occurred to me that it was something that sort of sounded like her. I thought I should just call her up and see if she'll sing on it. We sent her the track, you send it on people's computers. She really liked the song and she was on tour, but she had a day off and we just sort of did it from her hotel room. It took about 45 minutes. At the end of that session, I call it a session, but it was really just me and her on the phone and Dave Fridmann was recording it. She was listening to her iPod while I was giving her direction on the other line. And at the very end of it she just suggested that she do like a more freaked out version of the song.
And for like ten minutes she would just do these fucking amazing animal yelps and screams and growling and all this shit. And as she started to do that, I think in my mind immediately I started to think I would just do another song because it was so inspiring. I was like, damn, this sounds, this is better than I thought it was going to be. So I ended up making two songs out of the Karen O stuff. And I think she was thinking it was just going to be one. But I made another song and sent it to her and she really liked it. So I got two songs out of that. And MGMT, they recorded with Dave Fridmann anyway, you know?
They were trying to schedule time to come in and work on their new stuff and we were working on a song and Dave Fridmann had been talking to them. One night when he was talking to them, I said to ask them if they want to sing on this song that we're doing and they said, sure, send it over. So I sort of quickly put this song together and sent it to them, and they all got together in a... I think it was a study in Malibu where they were working and claimed that they made a big bonfire outside and they all ran outside and ran inside while they were singing and banging on stuff. It's a quite inspired track, I must say but we wrote all the lyrics and everything. They didn't have to do much to it other than just be themselves and be kind of reckless.
Very interesting. So you guys have absolutely exploded since The Soft Bulletin, but before that, you were working on some really wild conceptual pieces. Do you think that The Flaming Lips have another Parking Lot Experiment or Zaireeka or something along those lines left in you?
Well, I'm sure we do. I mean, it's hard to say where we would want to kind of break from this... we have a great audience now. And it's a bigger audience. And I don't necessarily like to go down the line and say, you would like our more experimental stuff and you wouldn't. And I think that's, if anything, that's the only quagmire that we would have with doing something that's so, so radically, you know, a category like that.
I mean, I know the concept of Zaireeka is strange. I don't think the music isn't necessarily that strange, you know? So that would be our only drawback to doing something that is so restrictive. I wouldn't, you know, I know that we would have people that come to see our shows that only know our past couple of records anyway and if we don't play enough of those songs sometimes I ... I ... and I want them to come to the shows, and sometimes feel like they're kind of being blindsided if we were just to go and be too experimental. Radiohead has been playing some festivals in Europe recently and we know a guy who road manages us over there is also working with them. And when they do too many of their new songs, brand new songs even that they've just written, at festivals ... there's a noticeable "hey man, what's going on?"
So in the past couple of weeks they would just start their shows and go to the greatest hits right away and ... it doesn't mean that's a cop out, it's just I think there's an element of a certain amount of the audience comes and this is what they expect. I'd want our audience to come to whatever we do and not to restrict it and so that would be my only ... reservation about doing something that I know is so... not restricting, but not what the Flaming Lips audience would expect. So I'm sure we would and I think we would like to think that there's an element of experimentation in everything that we do anyway.
And there is, I was not suggesting otherwise
That we don't necessarily have to say this is us being experimental here. I would say we're kind of being experimental all the time.
Agreed. So I have three fan questions for you.
Are you guys going to hit the road in the U.S. in the near future? The new year or sooner or...
I'm sure we will. I mean, we always have been playing, always everywhere in the world anyway, we never really are just on tour or recording. I mean, even when we were making this record we were playing shows in Europe and stuff. I don't know if we'll ever be a group like I could just compare us to say Pearl Jam or something where we play 100 shows at one time, you know? We're kind of, you know, I don't know if we're selective or we're wimps, but we'll do maybe 20, 25 shows in America in a year and to us that's a lot of shows. You know? So we try to make it a go everywhere, so yeah, sure.
So what was the first show that you ever went to?
The first rock show I ever went to was Alice Cooper.
Alice Cooper! Kinda of appropo, considering his theatricality.
But I have to say it wasn't very good. I was expecting the Alice Cooper that made the Killer record and the Love It To Death record. But he was beginning to do his Welcome to My Nightmare tour where he no longer had the group. It was kind of a big theatrical thing and I was horribly disappointed even though I was only 16 years old.
OK, so our last fan question is.... do you think that you would ever move your focus from the Flaming Lips to another project? I know this is kind of your life's work, but...
No, I mean... not on purpose. I mean, I'm so... lucky and... this is like my family. Everything about my life that is worth anything is because of not just the Flaming Lips, but because of the Flaming Lips' audience. So if I was to make another movie, it would be a Flaming Lips movie. I would never do anything and say, oh, this isn't the Flaming Lips. I am lucky that the Flaming Lips, this great vehicle, lets me do whatever I wanted. If I made a candy bar, it would be a Flaming Lips candy bar. If I made shoes, it would be Flaming Lips shoes. So, no, I would never... for anybody who would ever think would I want to make a solo record... no. I do everything that I want to do. The Flaming Lips has allowed me to be everything that I could ever dream of. So, if I'm lucky I'll always have this great umbrella of love and identity that's the Flaming Lips. I mean, because I didn't really make it, it kind of made itself and I'm lucky to kind of stand underneath it and go, wow, isn't this wonderful? Not just the music, but just the whole idea of what the Flaming Lips are. It's better than me, you know? I'm lucky to have it.
Wayne, thank you so much.